Monday, July 1, 2013

Why should I buy a Truck?

Occasionally, when I read a news story about some incredible behavior, I say aloud, "What were they thinking?"

A millionaire like Aaron Hernandez throws his life away.  What could he have been thinking?  Baseball players snort cocaine risking their careers for the rush of a drug.  What could they be thinking when they take that risk.  A basketball coach egregiously and repeatedly violates recruiting regulations.  He is hoping he can get away with it, but the rationale is so short sighted that you have to wonder if they could have been thinking when they did what they've done.

I've listened to a lot of public speeches in my day.  I have taught courses in public speaking to both undergraduates and graduates as well as assorted other populations in workshop environments.

One assignment that I tend to give when I teach these courses, is for the presenter to develop and present a persuasive talk. This is very standard in these classes. The presenter has to think of a topic that they really consider important, something that they can get heated about, and make a presentation to the twenty or so others in the class in an attempt to convince the audience to change an attitude or reinforce an existing one.

 I've heard hundreds of excellent such talks.  Surfacing to my consciousness now are presentations that argued against mandatory sentencing for drug offenders, contended that the Beatles more than political activists changed the philosophy and culture of the baby boomers, and one that asserted, categorically, that  driving while impaired is tantamount to attempted murder and should be punished in the same way.

Not all the talks have been excellent. Some topics repeat: eat healthily, exercise regularly, don't smoke, love your fellow citizen, don't pollute.  But the speakers in these at least understand the assignment.

One fellow early on in my career did not get the assignment.  He started out his persuasive talk this way.  "Why should I buy a truck? I'll tell you why I should buy a truck."

His talk went on to explain why he should buy a truck. He had the money.  He needed to haul large items.  He did not have any family so the seating would be sufficient.

The class listened incredulously to this talk.  Persuasive talks are not intended to convince the speaker of something, but convince the audience.  One woman wrote on the student evaluation form, "Why the hell should I care if you buy a truck."  The speaker had not wowed the group in class discussions previously, but this seemed to really irritate the gathered. Didn't he get it?

I took the student aside after class and tried to explain, though I was still a bit stunned, why his persuasive talk, "Why should I buy a truck?" was an inappropriate one for the assignment. He nodded at me as if he got it. "I see" he said, "I see."

I wasn't sure if he had.

The final talk was the equivalent of the final exam for the course. It too was to be persuasive and required at least some sort of visual support and demonstration.

The talks in the class were going along smoothly until the truck fellow began his oration.  "Why should I quit school and take a job in the post office?" was the topic.  Again, he had some arguments.  Post office paid well. There was no guarantee that if he passed up the job now it would still be available when he graduated.  He commented that the previous summer he had worked at the "Super Duper" in Gowanda and had not made as much as a bagger there as he would as a postal employee.  He projected a picture of the Super Duper in Gowanda.

The class was not happy during this talk. On the evaluation forms several students wrote different versions of "Given the truck speech, how could you deliver this? What could you have been thinking?"

Well, he couldn't have been thinking.

When we try to understand something that is inexplicable, we might want to reconsider the assumption that logic is the foundation for behavior.  I am not sure why my former student gave a persuasive speech entitled, "Why should I buy a truck?" And then gave a second speech of the same ilk.   Sure, it is possible that the fellow was just a dullard.

 But it is also possible that the wiring was not quite right. That  what he thought made sense and was logical was based on a twisted set of connections.

How could Aaron Hernandez throw away his millionaire life by being complicit in a murder.  How could Steve Howe or Daryl Strawberry stick powder up their noses and blow away their fortune.  Somehow when they did these things they thought they made sense. Just like my student who tried to explain to his class why he should buy a truck, thought that made sense.

So, when you try to figure out what someone was thinking when they do something inconceivable, don't start with their logic.  Start with their wiring.  What wires are missing? What pieces were damaged and bruised this way or that.  I'd suggest checking first the love wire.  See if it is dangling somewhere. Broken or never been appropriately secured.

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